Setting The New Yorker Straight on Freedom of Speech

 

free-speech-flagEarlier this month, The New Yorker ran an article by Kelefa Sanneh called, “The Hell You Say,” which purports to examine “the current free-speech debate.” Unfortunately, the article is chock full of inaccuracies and flawed arguments. We simply could not let this slide, so I, along with other staff members at FIRE, have carefully compiled A Dozen Things ‘The New Yorker’ Gets Wrong about Free Speech (And Why It Matters). Why is criticizing this one magazine article important, you might ask? As I say in our rebuttal:

First of all, in a time when people seem increasingly comfortable with book banning, blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, and amending the Constitution to limit the First Amendment, it’s important to take every opportunity we can to correct common misconceptions and explain some of the basics of the deep and profound philosophy behind free speech and the wisdom inherent in First Amendment law. Second, it’s important to take on the growing tide of critics, including authors and even journalists, who rely on freedom of speech but want to dismiss it as something unsophisticated or even dangerous. Whether from Eric Posner, Gary Trudeau, or Noah Feldman, there is a push to dismiss freedom of speech that seems to lionize the fact that other countries limit it. Every single one of these critics should sit down and read Flemming Rose’s book on international censorship, The Tyranny of Silence, before assuming that “enlightened censorship” is either justified or working out well for anyone.

There are ten more things the intrepid staff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education believes The New Yorker got wrong about free speech. Here’s the first:

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1. “In the years since [the speech debates of the 1990s], restrictive campus speech codes have been widely repealed, which is why modern free-speech advocates are often left to battle less draconian forms of censorship, like cancelled commencement addresses.”

On this point, Sanneh is simply misinformed. He may be thinking about the fact that since the late 1980s, numerous restrictive speech codes have been struck down as unconstitutional by federal courts across the country. But this virtually unbroken string of courtroom defeats (more than a dozen universities have seen their speech codes ruled unconstitutional in court, while nearly three dozen either have seen their policies struck down in court or have had to settle lawsuits) has not changed the fact that a majority of the nation’s top institutions of higher education continue to maintain speech codes. FIRE conducts extensive research on speech codes every year and we publish an annual report condensing that research into a picture of the state of free speech on campuses nationwide. According to our most recent report, released in December 2014, more than 55 percent of the 437 colleges and universities analyzed maintain speech codes that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.

Worse still, a new generation of restrictive speech codes is being installed nationwide in the wake of the federal government’s unprecedented intrusion into colleges’ handling of claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Faced with the threat of federal investigation and possibly even a loss of federal funds, many colleges are adopting a restrictive definition of sexual harassment put forth by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in a document billed as a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.” So while FIRE is indeed concerned with other forms of censorship (such as the very real censorship that occurs when universities disinvite commencement speakers to avoid discomfort and discontent among their students), we also continue to fight vigorously against campus speech codes.

Samantha Harris

Make sure to check out the rest of our rebuttal at The Huffington Post. Let me know what you think.

 

Members have made 11 comments.

  1. Profile photo of Arizona Patriot Inactive

    Many thanks to FIRE for continuing the fight for freedom.

    Do the Leftists really not understand that they are acting, literally, in an Orwellian way by suppressing speech? Or do they just not care?

    • #1
    • August 21, 2015 at 9:36 am
  2. Profile photo of Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Thank you. Looks great! And The Noo Yawker is upstream of culture, which is why we must all sanitize our drinking water until at least 2024.

    • #2
    • August 21, 2015 at 9:51 am
  3. Profile photo of Man With the Axe Member

    What I really hated (here comes some hate speech) about Sanneh’s article was its supercilious tone. He clearly doesn’t take the pro-free speech side very seriously. His many errors of fact and argument that Greg points out are obvious even to those with only cursory knowledge of the details.

    One example that I’d like to focus on is this comment from Sanneh’s article:

    It begins with the hypothetical example of a Muslim father who sees a sign that shows a picture of Muslim children along with the words “They are all called Osama.” Waldron’s point is that such signs would constitute an assault on the dignity and the status of Muslims in America. (A British man who displayed similar signs in his window was sentenced to a year in prison, for “religiously aggravated harassment.”)

    I’m guessing that Sanneh approves of how the British handled the actual case, and would prefer that to the hypothetical American treatment of protecting the speech.

    The point I’d like to make is that the same British authorities who go out of their way to protect Muslim sensibilities allow this sort of thing to go unmolested:

    Screen shot 2015-08-21 at 2.00.21 PM

    • #3
    • August 21, 2015 at 11:01 am
  4. Profile photo of Peter Robinson Founder

    Greg, I could just about kiss you for this. When I read that New Yorker piece, I wondered who could do it justice, so to speak. Now you have done it justice indeed.

    Thanks.

    • #4
    • August 21, 2015 at 12:06 pm
  5. Profile photo of Ray Kujawa Thatcher

    Greg Lukianoff:

    So while FIRE is indeed concerned with other forms of censorship (such as the very real censorship that occurs when universities disinvite commencement speakers to avoid discomfort and discontent among their students), we also continue to fight vigorously against campus speech codes.

    Samantha Harris

    Some questions I hope will be answered by the linked articles: I’ve heard various things commonly called censorship that aren’t, and not prevented by the Bill of Rights. I.e., only the government can really censor. Freedom of association (and of speech) enables any private party or social institution to disinvite a speaker. Does a university become a part of government merely because it takes funds from the government? Would such actions then constitute censorship? Another example — No radio station has to accept money to put on the air advertising that they disagree with, I thought, though they would have a disincentive to do so. But I’m sure your article does a lot more justice to the topic than The New Yorker. We can’t let falsehoods be spread unchallenged. This is what we’re all about.

    Edit: Greg makes a convincing argument to me that the actions and policies of universities constitute censorship. They can and have ruined people’s lives for using free speech liberties responsibly. The speech codes go far beyond any reasonable justification for their application, can and have been abused. I’m only down to points 1 and 2 in Greg’s article so far, felt I needed to adjust my comments.

    • #5
    • August 21, 2015 at 4:48 pm
  6. Profile photo of Peter Gøthgen Member

    Having just finally finished your article in The Atlantic about trigger warnings, I am seeing a great number of similar themes. This is, in essence, the sequel: what happens to people after college who have been so coddled. They really think it should be the job of authority to protect people from discomfort.

    As brilliant as the article was, however, there is a part of me that believes that the only appropriate response to Kelefa Sanneh’s article would have been to invoke the Monty Python knight with a rubber chicken.

    • #6
    • August 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm
  7. Profile photo of Greg Lukianoff Contributor
    Greg Lukianoff Post author

    Peter Robinson:Greg, I could just about kiss you for this. When I read that New Yorker piece, I wondered who could do it justice, so to speak. Now you have done it justice indeed.

    Thanks.

    Thanks Peter! High praise indeed.

    • #7
    • August 21, 2015 at 10:08 pm
  8. Profile photo of John Paul Inactive

    Greg/FIRE: Great piece on Huffington. The First Amendment is under assault, and I’m grateful for FIRE’s advocacy.

    • #8
    • August 22, 2015 at 10:29 am
  9. Profile photo of Greg Lukianoff Contributor
    Greg Lukianoff Post author

    Ray Kujawa:

    Greg Lukianoff:

    So while FIRE is indeed concerned with other forms of censorship (such as the very real censorship that occurs when universities disinvite commencement speakers to avoid discomfort and discontent among their students), we also continue to fight vigorously against campus speech codes.

    Samantha Harris

    Some questions I hope will be answered by the linked articles: I’ve heard various things commonly called censorship that aren’t, and not prevented by the Bill of Rights. I.e., only the government can really censor. Freedom of association (and of speech) enables any private party or social institution to disinvite a speaker. Does a university become a part of government merely because it takes funds from the government? Would such actions then constitute censorship? Another example — No radio station has to accept money to put on the air advertising that they disagree with, I thought, though they would have a disincentive to do so. But I’m sure your article does a lot more justice to the topic than The New Yorker. We can’t let falsehoods be spread unchallenged. This is what we’re all about.

    I disagree that only the government can censor. Mobs are among the most effective censors and it is considered a government responsibility under the First Amendment to prevent mob censorship (in public forums, at least). As for colleges, public colleges are bound by the first amendment, private ones are not, but are bound by their contractual promises. I explain it more detail in my books Freedom From Speech and Unlearning Liberty:Campus Censorship & the End of American Debate. 

    • #9
    • August 22, 2015 at 10:49 am
  10. Profile photo of Ray Kujawa Thatcher

    Greg Lukianoff: I disagree that only the government can censor. Mobs are among the most effective censors and it is considered a government responsibility under the First Amendment to prevent mob censorship (in public forums, at least). As for colleges, public colleges are bound by the first amendment, private ones are not, but are bound by their contractual promises. I explain it more detail in my books Freedom From Speech and Unlearning Liberty:Campus Censorship & the End of American Debate.

    You’re right. I’m reading your article now that I’m at home. It’s very compelling. Thanks for the comment.

    • #10
    • August 22, 2015 at 3:07 pm
  11. Profile photo of Greg Lukianoff Contributor
    Greg Lukianoff Post author

    Ray Kujawa:

    Greg Lukianoff: I disagree that only the government can censor. Mobs are among the most effective censors and it is considered a government responsibility under the First Amendment to prevent mob censorship (in public forums, at least). As for colleges, public colleges are bound by the first amendment, private ones are not, but are bound by their contractual promises. I explain it more detail in my books Freedom From Speech and Unlearning Liberty:Campus Censorship & the End of American Debate.

    You’re right. I’m reading your article now that I’m at home. It’s very compelling. Thanks for the comment.

    Thank you!

    • #11
    • August 23, 2015 at 9:51 am